Gadwall Duck - ISO 250, f/9.0, 1/30 second
Bird Photography

Try Panning to Give an Artistic Look to your Birds in Flight Photographs

Most of the time as bird photographers we try to keep our shutter speeds high to freeze the wings for birds in flight photographs.  Capturing a bird in flight with perfectly frozen wings and a sharp head and eyes can bring a sense of accomplishment to bird photographers.

For a more artistic look for your bird photographs, try panning with a slow shutter speed.  I find that creating an artistic looking bird photograph with blurred wings can be even more difficult than capturing a bird in flight with perfectly frozen wings.

The goal of this bird photography panning technique is to try and get the head in focus while creating an artistic look with blurred wings.

Flock of Geese in Flight - ISO 250, f/7.1, 1/30 second
Flock of Geese in Flight – ISO 250, f/7.1, 1/30 second

Birds in Flight Panning Technique

This birds in flight panning technique is best accomplished at the ends of the day just after sunrise or before sunset in order to be able to get dark enough exposures at slower shutter speeds.  Cloudy days can also work well.

I like the look better with a darker background like the shoreline of a lake or distant trees instead of a brighter sky for the background.  This will also help you to shoot at lower shutter speeds and get a darker exposure.

Hold your arms tight against your body for stabilization and pan horizontally from left to right or right to left.  If one is available, you can also use a railing for support. 

Goose Reflection ISO 200, f/10, 1/30 second
Goose Reflection ISO 200, f/10, 1/30 second

Try to stay as level as possible since your blurred background will often have lines or streaks due to panning at slow shutter speeds.  If a bird is landing (like the duck photograph in this blog), you can pan at an angle for some interesting diagonal lines.

Pan at the same speed that the bird is flying.

Try panning for birds in flight over bodies of water.  Birds often fly close to the water surface for takeoffs and landings.  You can also incorporate the reflections in the composition.

Flocks of smaller birds can also make for good artistic compositions.

Geese Black and White - ISO 200, f/10, 1/30 second
Geese Black and White – ISO 200, f/10, 1/30 second
Topaz Labs

Camera Settings for Panning for Birds in Flight

Manual Mode.  I like to shoot in Manual Mode keeping the shutter speed where I need it for the wing blur and change the aperture to get the correct exposure. 

Shutter Speed.  1/20 – 1/40 of a second.  This will vary by how much blur you want on the wings and the size of the bird.  I typically like enough blur to give the wing a blur look to show movement but not too much where you lose the shape of the wing.  A good starting point is around 1/30 of a second.

Aperture.  You will want to use a smaller aperture like f/8 – f/13.  Like I mentioned above, I keep the shutter speed constant and use the aperture to get the correct exposure.  I set up the histogram in my viewfinder so I can easily check the exposure as the light changes.

ISO.  Using a lower ISO 100-200, helps to get the correct exposure at slow shutter speeds.  If you are already using a small aperture like f/16, you can use the Low ISO settings on your camera to help get the right exposure.

Image Stabilization.  If your camera has In Body Image Stabilization (IBIS), set it to Vertical Only Image Stabilization since you will be panning horizontally.  If your camera does not have Vertical Only Image Stabilization, try turning image stabilization off.

Autofocus Mode.  I use Continuous AF mode to help focus the flying bird the same as I would for normal birds in flight photography.

Frame Rate.  I also shoot at high frame rate like I do for regular birds in flight photography.

Written by Martin Belan

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